The wave of strikes by fast food workers swept into Seattle last week, the seventh city in a matter of weeks where workers have declared they’ve had enough of not earning enough. Workers walked off their jobs from major fast food outlets like McDonald’s, Taco Bell, Subway and Burger King, making a very public statement that they cannot get by on the poverty-level wages they earn.

More importantly, their actions challenge us to fight for an economy that works for all of us. The annual average salary for fast food workers is less than $18,000, nowhere near a living wage. And adult workers, many of them highly educated—not high-schoolers—are trying to live on these wages. Eighty-eight percent of U.S. workers who make less than $10 per hour are adults, and their average age is 35. In this industry, a college degree doesn’t necessarily mean a good job: More than 400,000 college graduates are among those working the front-line jobs.

Fast food workers in Seattle might be able to pay the rent, but they can’t afford to pay for any other basic necessities.
Here in Washington, we boast about our highest-in-the-country minimum wage. But that wage, $9.19 an hour, translates into less than $1,500 a month for a full-time worker, exactly the average rent for an apartment in Seattle. Fast food workers in Seattle might be able to pay the rent, but they can’t afford to pay for any other basic necessities.

These low wages illustrate a disturbing trend.  Even before the Great Recession, wages were stagnant, and jobs that paid a living wage and provided benefits like vacation pay and pensions were becoming the exception. But during the recession, 60 percent of the jobs that were lost were in mid-wage occupations. In the recovery, the numbers are reversed: 60 percent of growth has been in low-wage jobs like food preparation and retail. Families that flourished on jobs in construction are barely surviving on fast food and retail jobs.

During the recession, 60 percent of the jobs that were lost were in mid-wage occupations. In the recovery, the numbers are reversed: 60 percent of growth has been in low-wage jobs like food preparation and retail.

Corporate America, especially the fast food industry, can well afford a living wage for workers. Two in three low-wage workers are employed by large corporations with more than 100 employees, among them giants like Walmart, McDonald’s and Yum Brands (which owns Pizza Hut, Taco Bell and KFC).  Corporations are on a roll, with profits as a share of the economy hitting the highest level since World War Two. McDonald’s posted profits of $5.5 billion last year. CEOs aren't hurting either:  McDonald’s CEO earned $13.8  million last year, an hourly rate of more than $6,600 for a full year of full-time work—more in three hours of work than the typical full time fast food worker earns in a full year.

Make no mistake: Low-wage employers have a choice when it comes to paying their employees, as the strong profits earned by McDonalds, Walmart, and other major corporations make clear. These companies can pocket their profits, or they can invest in their workforce by paying fair wages that enable their employees to get by without relying on public assistance.

More and more, our economy is marked by these two extremes, and the trend is not going away. Six out of the ten jobs projected to have the most openings between now and 2020 are in low-wage industries like fast food, home health care and retail, where average annual wages hover around $20,000.

 

Low wages affect the workers on strike across America, but they affect the rest of us, too. If jobs don’t pay enough for workers to afford the basics, then workers can’t spend enough to keep our economy moving.  But when low wage workers get a raise, we all benefit. It’s simple: Raising pay scales for these workers puts money in their pockets to spend in local business. When money is spent in local businesses, they in turn can afford to hire more workers. When local businesses hire, our economy improves.

A healthy economy depends on businesses paying enough so that workers can at least afford the basics. By putting more money into the pockets of workers in fast-growing low-wage jobs, we can get our economy moving again and rebuild the middle class. We should celebrate the workers’ courage and demand that the fast food industry pay up—for the benefit of us all.

Rebecca Smith is a senior attorney at the National Employment Law Project in Seattle.